Tackling Obesity in ASEAN: Country-specific Nutrition Education Programmes

Previously described as the disease of affluence, obesity has become one of today’s most pressing public health problems across all income levels. Apart from the steadily rising rates of overweight and obesity in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries over the last three decades, there has also been an increased incidence of childhood obesity – nearly half of 41 million overweight or obese children under the age of 5 live in Asia, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

This forms a particularly worrying trend, as childhood obesity is a powerful indicator of adult obesity, and is highly correlated with the development of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in adults, including type 2 diabetes, hypertension, coronary heart disease, stroke and some forms of cancer. It has never been more important to explore innovations and solutions in tackling the preventable disease of obesity, which has proven to be a significant economic burden and a great strain on public health systems.

In June 2017, the Asia Roundtable on Food Innovation for Improved Nutrition (ARoFIIN), in collaboration with the Health Promotion Board (HPB) and the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), launched a report titled “Tackling Obesity in ASEAN”, to guide policymakers, health organisations and the food & beverage industry in taking on the rising threat in the region. Using key findings from the report, which sampled six ASEAN countries (Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam), ARoFIIN hosted a series of in-country follow-up workshops in Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines last year, gathering experts across the sectors of academia, government, industry and civil society. Together, participants identified localised, country-specific interventions to tackle obesity, with a focus on nutrition education to children.

A bottom-up approach was central to the suggested interventions across the workshops. Each country had a unique proposal to tackle the growing obesity prevalence in its country, tailored to its respective social and cultural situation, because a “one-size-fits-all” approach would not sufficiently address such a multi-factorial, multi-dimensional problem.

Proposed interventions

Malaysia faces the highest overweight and obesity prevalence across the six ASEAN countries studied – Malaysians face a lack of physical activity due to the increased emphasis on academic excellence attributing to additional desk-bound hours among children. Discussions from the Malaysian workshop pointed to a reward-based programme, known as the “Healthy School Award Initiative”. Targeting secondary schools, it aims to engage the entire school community in promoting a healthy and active school environment, enhancing motivation through the provision of incentives.

The core of Indonesia’s proposed intervention was based on the GERMAS “Healthy Indonesia”- Movement of Healthy Living Community Framework, initiated by Indonesian President Joko Widodo to strengthen the health development of the Indonesian population. The framework targets individuals and the community by tapping into their own motivations to act on forming healthier lifestyle habits in terms of increased physical activity, consumption of fruits and vegetables, and reduced consumption of alcohol and smoking. Governments, academics, industry players, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the community will play a supporting role in shaping the environment to encourage healthier choices. 

For Thailand, a multi-sectoral scheme was proposed, with aims to instil the importance of nutrition in the school curriculum. Under the “Nutri-Teacher” programme, a new position for university students – specialising in food and nutrition, and aspiring to become schoolteachers – will be introduced to educate the target audience of children aged 4 to 12. This will happen alongside modification of the food and physical activity environment to improve the health status in Thailand.

In the Philippines, an active-play programme, or the “Balik Sigla” movement, will target rural and peri-urban schools by modifying the school curriculum. The revised curriculum will include gardening activities, agriculture and nutrition education in the classroom, as well as practical activities to encourage and facilitate healthier food and lifestyle choices.

Such tailored obesity prevention strategies, fostered through collaborative actions, will be key to reducing the obesity rates in the respective countries. An outcomes document illustrating the suggested interventions discussed at the workshops will, subsequently, be used to engage key stakeholders in the four identified countries, in order to gather feedback and help shape some of these suggested interventions, prior to seeking potential partners and collaborations to execute the interventions in-country. 

For a copy of the report containing detailed outcomes from the follow-up workshops, please contact secretariat@arofiin.org.

Published on 27 Feb 2018